'We're trying to overcome an outdated image'
The son of a dinner lady and a confectionery wholesaler - installed this month as the new admissions director of the University of Cambridge - believes that the elite and venerable institution has an image problem.
Mike Sewell, who went to a Yorkshire comprehensive before attending Cambridge himself in the 1970s, is worried that stereotypes associated with the university are putting students off applying.
"Think about the portrayal of don-ishness and student experience that you get (on television and in films)," he said. "It's completely unrelated to the reality of the university in the 21st century. The Olympic torch comes to Cambridge and they recreated Chariots of Fire. We're constantly trying to overcome an outdated image. Often it's the sort of rosy glow of nostalgia - maybe it was never like that."
The good news for Dr Sewell is that Cambridge expects the proportion of state school students being admitted to the university this year to reach a 30-year high - 60 per cent of new undergraduates will be taken from the state sector.
His comments come just a week after Professor Les Ebdon, the new director of the Office for Fair Access, said that universities must set tougher admissions targets for students from poor backgrounds or face losing the right to charge more than #163;6,000 a year for courses.
Significant improvements were made under Dr Sewell's predecessor, Geoff Parks, who axed the separate Cambridge application form and the requirement of all applicants to have a foreign language GCSE. But Dr Sewell insists there is still much work to do. For students from schools without a tradition of sending pupils to Oxbridge, the media portrayal perpetuates the perception of, "Oh you don't want to go there, they won't want people like you", he said.
Dr Sewell faced that situation as he contemplated Cambridge as a schoolboy in Whitby, North Yorkshire. "There was community pressure on me not to go too far south," he said. "There was a concern that this was somehow tearing a family bond apart and that I would be transformed.
"I'm not doing something as a crusading venture based on my past experience, but I think I am conscious that there are perceptions of the university that we constantly have to overcome."
Dr Sewell, who read history at Christ's College and was most recently admissions tutor at Selwyn College, said that there are still many other myths surrounding Cambridge, particularly connected to the interview process.
"There is the myth common to some headteachers that we look for a certain personality type ... but I once admitted a student who was monosyllabic at interview, she was so nervous and tense," he said. "We are much more likely to overlook a hesitant interview than poor performance at A level."
The university is now focusing its energies on schemes such as Area Links, which gives every school a local contact in a Cambridge college to advise teachers on admissions and arrange visits. It also wants to improve access to its summer schools.
And Dr Sewell is very aware of the difference an enthusiastic teacher can make. He was urged to apply to Cambridge by his deputy head - he had been intending to apply to what was then Teesside Polytechnic.
The goal over the next five years is to take 61-63 per cent of the intake from state schools; the figure is based on the number of pupils who currently achieve the right grades in the right subjects from the state sector. The university hopes for 4 per cent of its undergraduates to come from so-called "low participation neighbourhoods", up from 3.5 per cent currently.
But, like his predecessor Dr Parks, Dr Sewell is keen for the university to remain highly academically selective. There will be no lower offers for comprehensive school pupils. "We absolutely have to maintain the academic integrity that makes the university a world leader," he said.
See pages 26-30
CV: Mike Sewell
- Attended Whitby School, a comprehensive in North Yorkshire.
- Read history at Christ's College, Cambridge.
- Postgraduate study at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, US.
- PhD in Anglo-American relations from 1870 to 1898.
- 1991: Tutor and director of studies, Selwyn College, Cambridge.
- 2003: Admissions tutor at Selwyn College.
- 2012: Director of admissions for the Cambridge Colleges.